Teachers and Initiation

Recently, I have been thinking about these two topics, because one dear friend and one acquaintance made comments to me that I couldn’t entirely disagree with, but also couldn’t quite resonate with, either.  My friend, Musawwir, (see link to his wonderful blog in my sidebar), is a colleague, in that we are both guides in our particular Sufi Order International, child of its parent, the Chishtia Order, of India.  We both go pretty far back with our order, and have seen it go through many changes over the years, and have found ourselves able to accept some of those changes, and inclined to leave others alone.  Recently, we talked about guiding initiates in the Sufi Order, and he commented that he didn’t even think they needed to take formal initiation, and I can’t argue with that, because initiation–real initiation–is supposed to be a deeply inner experience confirming what the initiate has always known. 

The aim [of initiation] is to find God within your self: to dive deep within your self, that you may be able to touch the unity of the Whole Being. By the power of initiation, towards this end you work, so that from within you may get all the inspiration and blessing in your life. Hazrat Inayat Khan

As I understand it, initiation both is and is not connected with the person who stands in front of you and gives the initiation. It is a beginning, a confirmation, and classically formalizes a connection with a guide, or a teacher. We used to say words like “guru” and “Murshid,” and I still love to say them, because I love to give a title of honor to someone I know will never take advantage of it. Others in our Order have decided that these titles ought not to be used, because they imply an uneven power balance. Yet how is there not an uneven power balance, if such a phrase is taken literally? Initiation is about learning to tap into the inner power that is of the Divine Being, and one takes initiation in order to learn how to do that, and to confirm that this is the main goal in life, at least to those who choose this path. It seems clear to me that we are on different parts of the same road that leads to the goal.

Initiation, or in Sufi terms Bayat, first of all has to do with the relationship between the pupil and the Murshid. The Murshid is understood to be the counsellor on the spiritual path. He does not give anything to or teach the pupil, the mureed, for he cannot give what the latter already has; he cannot teach what his soul has always known. What he does in the life of the mureed is to show him how he can clear his path towards the light within by his own self. This is the only purpose of man’s life on earth. One may attain the purpose of life without a personal guide, but to try to do so is to be like a ship traversing the ocean without a compass. To take initiation, then, means entrusting oneself in regard to spiritual matters to a spiritual guide.

This, of course, brings us to my other topic, teachers. Guides. For me, the two are inseparably linked: the teacher initiates and continues to initiate as each new stage is discovered and internalized for practical purposes. Now, I happen to count, as one of my initiators, Murshid Shamcher Beorse, to whose works you will also find a link in one of my sidebars. Most Sufis–the real ones, anyway–tend to kind of be laws unto themselves, for this is a path that urges individuation. Shamcher loved to say, at every opportunity, that there ARE NO TEACHERS. I was not present when he died many years ago, to my sorrow, but I heard those were his last words. His point is that the teacher is no more than a reflection of what one has always known, which is that YOU are the teacher. My beloved Pir Vilayat used to tell the story of how, as a young seeker, he went to India to find a teacher he had heard of, who lived in the Himalayas. Bravely, he hacked his way through jungles, crossed rivers and climbed mountains until at last he reached the place where the guru sat, and he said the very air seemed to vibrate, to shimmer with meaning. When he sat in front of the teacher, the teacher asked him, “Why have you come so far to find yourself?” Pir said that if he’d had his wits about him, he would have said, “Well, I had to see what I looked like, so that I would recognize myself.”

It’s as simple as that. My dear friend Tansen-Muni once told me that the relationship between teacher and student is so simple as two friends walking along a road. One picks up a piece of wood and carves it into a clever little whistle, and the other says, “Hey, how’d you do that? Can you teach me?” And the other guy does. Many of us who got into the “spiritual trip” of the early 70s were inclined to be impressed by old stories that showed the teacher testing the disciple in numerous ways, of the proper attitude of respect for the teacher, essentially turning the teacher into a god and making obedience to every thought, word and deed of the teacher an imperative to obedience. But Pir always told us that an authentic teacher is one who makes no claims for her or himself, and who would never think of impinging on one’s free will in any way. And because of that, I myself have been saved many times from deals offered in bad faith.

Another person I know told me she didn’t need a teacher, and didn’t need initiation, although she had taken both. That’s probably true for some people, but I have a feeling that others take this stance for the wrong reasons, because ultimately this spiritual path thing is about learning to love, and true love invariably involves surrender to the object of one’s love and a deep commitment to the wishes and needs of the beloved. True love means forgetting oneself in the apprehension of the beloved. Ultimately, true love means that being in love causes one to become oneself in ways this would not have been possible otherwise. Curiouser and Curiouser….. My limited conception of myself has always balked at any hint of this, and my greater self has always been grateful for every opportunity to lose myself for the sake of love.

The Beloved is all in all, the lover merely veils him. The Beloved is all that lives, the lover a dead thing. –Rumi

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